Refugees, Repatriates and West
Yuriy RUBTSOV | 24.08.2015 | FEATURED STORY

Refugees, Repatriates and West

The civil war unleashed by the Kiev regime in southeast Ukraine has exacerbated the refugee problem considerably. Since the turn of the 1940s-1950s, Europe has been ignorant of the displacement of such large amounts of people. According to the latest UN data, by 31 July 2015 more than 2.3 million people had left their place of permanent residence in Ukraine. In addition, Kiev is only willing to help those Donbass residents who have fled the bombing and shelling to areas under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. 

Washington is acting along similar lines, announcing at the end of May that it would be providing $61 million in financial aid to internally displaced persons, which is to say just those who have left Donbass to go to areas under the control of Kiev. 

The origins of America’s attitude towards people suffering hardships can be seen in its approach to the issue of repatriation, namely the repatriation of prisoners of war and civilians who found themselves outside of their country as a result of the Second World War. During the final battles with Nazi Germany, Western powers not only began to hatch plans for war against its Soviet ally, but also began to sabotage measures for the mutual repatriation of their countries’ citizens that had been agreed by the leaders of the ‘Big Three’. 

The fundamentals of returning displaced persons to their place of permanent residence were decided at the Yalta Conference and reflected in the bilateral agreements between the USSR, the US and Great Britain signed on 11 February 1945. In accordance with these, all displaced former citizens would be subject to mandatory repatriation to their home country. The three allied countries (later joined by France) took on the following obligations: no matter which territory liberated by the Allies their citizens were found in, they would all without delay after their liberation be separated from enemy POWs and maintained separately in camps or points of concentration until their transfer into the hands of a representative of the country of which they were previously citizens.

Allied military authorities were also obliged to take all necessary measures to protect camps and points of concentration from enemy bombing and artillery fire (the issue of repatriation arose as early as 1944 when the Red Army crossed the state border and Anglo-American troops landed in Normandy) and provide displaced persons with food, clothes, housing and medical treatment. It was also specifically stated that enemy propaganda in camps directed against the contracting parties or against any of the United Nations or states that were part of the anti-Hitler coalition during the Second World War would not be permitted. 

It was not just Moscow that had an interest in the mandatory repatriation of all Soviet refugees, but also its coalition partners who, immediately after the end of the war, wanted to quickly rid themselves of the huge burden of providing for, protecting and transporting millions of people. Suffice it to say that by 20 August 1945, the Allies had handed over more than 1.5 million repatriates to Soviet representatives at the demarcation line and by 1 March 1946 this number had increased to almost 2.4 million. By the spring of 1946, the flow of repatriates from the West had virtually dried up and over the next seven years, they were joined by a total of around 250,000 people. 

It stands to reasons that when millions of people had to be identified, gathered together in displaced persons camps and moved hundreds and thousands of kilometres in a very short space of time (the process included more than 10.5 million people, 5.5 million of which were Soviet citizens) as well as given a roof over their heads, transport and all kinds of rations, difficulties arose at every step. These were overcome with the goodwill of all the parties involved, but more often than not Western allies exhibited this goodwill through force of circumstance or when there was something in it for them. In all other cases they dealt with previously agreed decisions arbitrarily or just refused to comply with them at all. 

The longer the repatriation of Soviet citizens went on, the more Western powers focused on the principle of voluntary rather than mandatory repatriation. Thus they refused to acknowledge the Soviet citizenship of those who had lived in the Baltic States, Western Ukraine and Belarus, which joined the USSR after 1 September 1939.

The Allied administration often kept Soviet citizens together with enemy prisoners of war and transferred them from one camp to another without informing Soviet representatives. It also refused to allow Soviet repatriation representatives into camps and points of concentration and put White Russian émigrés and collaborators in charge of the camps. Captured Red Army soldiers were terrorised into thinking they would face all sorts of punishment should they return to the USSR. The aim was twofold: to refill the anti-Soviet emigration camp as much as possible and build up reserves of cheap labour for Western countries. 

Yet despite everything, the majority of Soviet citizens (nearly 70 per cent of the total number of repatriates according to historian Viktor Zemskov’s estimates) wanted to return home.

In Western and even in post-Soviet literature, there is a popular thesis that had the repatriation been voluntary, the majority of Russians would have stayed in the West. But who there would have allowed them to stay? It is impossible not to agree with the arguments of the famous Russian historical expert Yury Arzamaskin that there was nowhere for either the 4.5 million former Soviet citizens who passed through the displaced persons camps or the 450,000 people who were still in camps at the end of the 1940s to build a new life. Even those countries that had available land for resettlement (Canada, Argentina, Australia and others) refused to accept them.

The West only took those willing to carry out anti-Soviet activities or those who agreed to arduous menial work on plantations and in mines. As soon as these ‘vacancies’ were filled, former Soviet citizens were gotten rid of at any cost. Attitudes towards them in the West were indifferent at best and inhumane at worst.

We are not saying that the position of the Soviet authorities on the issue of repatriation was politically and morally irreproachable. Many people who had never had Soviet citizenship (such as the first wave of emigrants) and who should not have been included in the repatriation were transported to the USSR. International marriages were not taken into account leading to either the breakup of families or the forced repatriation of non-USSR citizens. Struggling against the Allies’ anti-Soviet propaganda in the camps, the Soviet authorities through the NKVD (The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) and the administration of verification and filtration camps frequently subjected the people who ended up in their hands, especially soldiers liberated from prisoner of war camps, to harsh and undeserved punishment. 

However, one thing the Soviet leadership cannot be accused of is derogating in any way from the measures agreed with the Allies to repatriate the citizens of Western countries liberated by the Red Army. 

Tags: Eastern Europe  Germany  Russia  US  USSR